5 Science Fiction Subgenres You Should Know

We’ve already talked about why genre matters and looked at some common fantasy subgenres; today, we’re delving into science fiction. 

If you write sci-fi, there’s a nearly endless number of subgenres you can incorporate into your novel. Here are five you might be interested in (they’re beloved for a reason!).

1. Dystopian Sci-fi

These stories are often set in a post-post-apolocalyptic setting—the world fell apart, and now it’s been rebuilt to the benefit of a few. While dystopias often feature an authoritarian ruler and oppressed population, they can also be anarchical. Intrinsic to the genre are inescapable social and/or political structures that make life unbearable for the characters. 

Examples: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (now a hugely popular Netflix show), Blindness by José Saramago, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemison

2. Steampunk

Steampunk has one of the best aesthetics of any genre, and that’s a hill I’m willing to die on. This genre is built around a retrofuturistic Victorian era—the machines are all steam-powered, but are far more technologically advanced than anything that existed in the real world at this time. Think automatons, airships, and analog computers. Plots involving heists and mysteries are especially well-suited to this genre. It breaks my heart that this genre isn’t more popular, and I will take any opportunity to draw attention to it.

Examples: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, Homonculus by James P. Blaylock, Magnificent Devices by Shelly Adina, Mortal Engines by Philip Reeves

3. Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk is all about the high-tech: virtual realities, sophisticated AI, neural uplinks, and lots of neon light. And, as with all the “-punk” genres, a healthy dose of grit is required. Systematic corruption, untenable wealth inequality, and hardboiled, cynical protagonists are common hallmarks of the genre. The juxtaposition between inconceivably advanced technology and the squalor of society is what makes this type of novel so compelling.

Examples: Altered Carbon by Phillip K. Dick (adapted to a Netflix show of the same name), Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow, Trouble and her Friends by Melissa Scott, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupie, and Void Star by Zachary Mason

4. Afrofuturism

This genre explores black identity, the African-American experience, and the history and ancestry of the black diaspora through a lens of fantastical elements and imagined futures. While afrofuturism can be found in both fantasy and alternate histories, it is predominantly a sci-fi subgenre. The MCUs Black Panther is perhaps the most popular mainstream example of afrofuturism (it’s currently the fourth highest-grossing movie of all time in the US).

Examples: Kindred by Octavia Butler, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, Brown in the Girl Ring by Nalo Hopkinson, Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett, Ever Fair by Nisi Shawl, and Great Cities by N.K. Jemisin

5. Space Western

Picard wasn’t wrong when he called space “the final frontier.” The imagined exploration and “discovery” of space has a lot in common with the romanticized exploration and “discovery” of the Wild West depicted in cowboy movies. Space westerns revolve around protagonists delving into the unknown, traversing hostile environments, confronting outlaws, and partaking in light criminality themselves. Conflicts tend to be personal rather than universe-ending. Planets resembling the Southwestern United States, complete with cacti and alien cattle, are frequent destinations. While this genre had fallen somewhat out of literary favour for a while, it’s seen a resurgence onscreen (Firefly, Cowboy Bebop, and The Mandalorian are all beloved space westerns) and in print.

Examples: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, Ringworld by Larry Niven, and The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey

Think about the most important characteristics of your plot, characters, and story, and figure out which sub-genre best encompasses those. Whether your sci-fi is dystopian, retro, high-tech, culturally rooted, or filled with people yelling “yee-ha!”, it will have an audience, and your genre tags will help them find you!

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